SEATTLE — Jenny McGee founded Starfish Project, an NGO operating as a socially responsible jewelry company that helps combat human trafficking in Asia, in 2006. The organization works with women trafficked into Asia’s sex industry, offering them a way out of exploitation by hiring them to work a dignified job at a fair wage.
McGee moved to China in 2002, and her idea for Starfish Project developed after she got to know some of the women trapped in exploitation. Many of them grew up in the countryside and came from impoverished backgrounds. They left home hoping to find jobs in the city that would allow them to support both themselves and their families.
However, the women’s lack of familiarity with a new city and their desperation for a source of income made them vulnerable to human traffickers. Many were tricked into working at massage shops and brothels. Some were tricked by friends and family members. Some of the women were pressured to remain in the sex industry by their husbands and families, who relied on their income.
To provide the women with a way out, McGee knew that she had to address the issue that kept the women trapped in their situations – poverty. In an article published by Working Woman Report, McGee is quoted as stating: “…as I got to know the women and started asking about their dreams, I realized that poverty has a way of stripping people of their ability to dream.”
So, she decided to open a jewelry business.
Hiring the women to make jewelry allows them to work a job they feel proud of while earning a fair wage. However, Starfish Project does more than simply offer the women a source of income. The organization has adopted a holistic model of post-trafficking care, providing the women with a place in their shelter, counseling, access to health care, medical insurance, and retirement benefits.
Starfish Project also offers vocational training, such as computer training courses in Microsoft Office, as well as opportunities to study photography and graphic design. The social enterprise also promotes internally, allowing the women to take on larger roles within the company and develop professionally.
By offering their employees a chance to learn new skills and bolster their resume, Starfish Project opens hundreds of new doors for them, as many of the women have low educational attainment.
In March 2015, McGee sat on a panel for the United Nations 59th session on the Commission on the Status of Women. In the same year, McGee and Starfish Project’s remarkable work were also recognized by the Kering Foundation, which awarded a €30,000 grant to the organization. Starfish Project will also receive mentorship from a Kering Group senior manager for two years, allowing the organization to expand its reach into the Chinese market.
As Starfish Project celebrates a decade of growth this year, it looks forward to a bright future of continuing success. The organization has been looking to expand its sales in the United States, speaking with several large-scale retailers about partnership opportunities. Starfish Project has also been expanding its Advocates of Hope program. Individuals who sign up for their program help sell Starfish Project jewelry to benefit the organization, while also receiving a commission on their sales.
As a registered 501(c)(3) organization, Starfish Project does not seek increased profits for just business purposes. The real goal of increasing sales and production is to increase the organization’s ability to employ more women.
In an article published by Working Woman Report, McGee remarks, “If we can sell thousands of products, that’s a lot more lives we can help.”